A Christmas Message

The grace of God, which has appeared in the birth of Jesus the Christ, be with you always.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Christmas is about joy. You can see it in the face of a child ending the agonizing weeks of waiting in the full light of the Christmas tree. You can feel it around the table as families reunite and fond memories of past gatherings are shared. Christmas joy is experienced through the peace and rest of a break from daily efforts to make our way in the world.

As joyous as this season may be, Christmas can also be a time of grief and loneliness, pain and despair. As John Irving writes in A Prayer for Owen Meany, “Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not home.” We can see be overwhelmed by how we have fallen short of our expectations for the perfect celebration – the meal is too meager, the roast too done, the gifts insufficient, the empty places at the table too many.

The incarnation of Christ is grace poured out upon humanity for the sake of broken, weary people. Saint Ambrose, a great preacher and teacher, Bishop of Milan in the 4th Century wrote in his Exposition on the Gospel of Luke:

“He was a baby and a child, so that you might be a perfect human.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes so that you might be freed from the snares of death.
He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.
He was on the earth that you may be in the stars.
He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.
‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich….’
He chose to lack for himself that he may abound for all.
The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins.”

Whether this Christmas brings joy or sadness, fulfillment or feelings of failure, or some bittersweet mixture of all these things, hear this: the center of the Christmas gospel is that God in Christ has invaded our space, sat down next to us to share our joy and bear our pain. Jesus is “God with us” – Immanuel. God has come to us to be incarnate in each moment of our living, each experience of joy and in every moment of suffering. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow expresses this presence of Christ in this way:

“And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
For hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men!”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail
the right prevail
with peace on earth good will to men!”

Jesus Christ was born for you and for me. That is what makes Christmas merry.

Pastor Tim

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.